Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano
Residents living outside 6-kilometer radius of Mayon volcano’s crater have also packed their bags for evacuation centers. (AP)
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Updated 10 June 2023

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano
  • More than 6,000 villagers have been forced to leave rural communities within a 6-kilometer radius of Mayon volcano’s crater

BONGA, Philippines: Thousands of people who fled their homes in the central Philippines to escape a restive volcano have to contend with another threat that’s complicating the ongoing evacuations: monsoon rains that could be unleashed by an approaching typhoon.
More than 6,000 villagers have been forced to leave rural communities within a 6-kilometer radius of Mayon volcano’s crater in northeastern Albay province. Thousands more need to be moved to safety from the permanent danger zone, officials said.
Others living outside the perimeter have packed their bags and voluntarily left with their children for evacuation centers in Albay, which was placed under a state of calamity on Friday to allow more rapid disbursement of emergency funds in case a major eruption unfolds.
Authorities raised the alert level for the volcano on Thursday after superheated streams of gas, debris and rocks cascaded down its upper slope, indicating activity below the surface that could precede a hazardous eruption within days or weeks.
A key tourist draw for its picturesque conical shape, the 2,462-meter Mayon is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. It last erupted violently in 2018, displacing tens of thousands of villagers.
Authorities warned that Typhoon Guchol, which is approaching the Philippines from the Pacific but is projected to skirt the archipelago, may still dump heavy rains — an unwelcome news for those living near Mayon’s slopes.
“There’s a typhoon and floodwaters may rush down Mayon and swamp this village. That’s one of our fears,” Villamor Lopez, a house painter, said.
He sat worriedly with his relatives clinging to their bags of clothes, rice in pouches and bottles of drinking water on a pickup truck hauling villagers from Daraga town in Albay to an emergency shelter several kilometers (miles) away.
Other residents chatted on a roadside near a chapel, still undecided whether to leave.
A loudspeaker in their laid-back community of low-slung rural houses and narrow dirt alleys warned people to prepare to evacuate anytime if the situation worsens. In the overcast sky above them, the volcano laid hidden by thick rainclouds.
Village leader Dennis Bon, who was preparing to drive Lopez and others to the shelter, said he would not risk waiting until the last minute.
“We have children, persons with disabilities and elderly residents here,” Bon said, before he drove off.
Albay Gov. Edcel Greco Lagman and Welfare Secretary Rex Gatchalian said they were prepared if monsoon rains were to trigger mudflows and rockfalls.
“We will still make sure that we will have no casualties from any compounded calamities,” Lagman said.
Despite growing worries among many villagers, those who have survived Mayon’s eruptions over decades were taking the latest threats in stride.
In Bonga village near the volcano, a few men gingerly took a bath in a stream of spring water flowing down Mayon’s lush foothills and washed two motorcycles near boulders as big as cars that had rolled down years ago during past eruptions.
They shrugged and smiled when asked if the volcano’s new rumblings had struck fear.
The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the area around the ocean rim where tectonic plates meet that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. A long-dormant volcano, Mount Pinatubo, blew its top north of Manila in 1991 in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds of people.

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts
Updated 27 September 2023

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts

Biden administration seeking greater Mideast engagement, influence: Experts
  • China’s growing power, Russia-Ukraine war forced US policy turnaround, say panelists at Washington D.C. forum
  • Saudi Arabia considered a key partner in America’s new foreign policy approach

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking increased engagement with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries — a marked shift from its previous policy position — because of China’s and Russia’s growing influence in the region, and their military and economic expansionist ambitions. 

This was the consensus reached by experts evaluating US foreign policy at a forum convened on Monday by the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. 

The event titled “Assessing Biden’s Middle East Policy Approach, 2021–2023,” saw panelists analyze why the administration, which took office in 2021, initially had little desire to engage with what the US perceived as the declining geopolitical importance of Middle East nations. 

The experts argued that there were two main reasons for the White House’s subsequent change of heart — the first being Russia’s war in Ukraine launched in February 2021, and the second China’s rising regional influence which saw Beijing score a coup of sorts by brokering a rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. 

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and the vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, said the Biden administration came into office with the mantra of the “Three Cs” — COVID-19, China and climate change. 

Katulis argued that Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s increased footprint in the Middle East triggered an alarm in Biden’s White House. 

“Last spring there was a steady realization in Washington that traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia might be leaning toward China,” he said.  

“China’s brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year was a seismic moment and a wake-up call for many in the White House,” he added. 

Dennis Ross, a former advisor on the Middle East to several Democrat and Republican administrations and currently a fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Biden administration did not care about the Middle East when it took office in 2021. 

Ross said the conflict in Ukraine changed the dynamics and it was not just oil and energy — the revenue from which Russia needs to finance its war — that drove the administration to reengage in the Middle East.  

Ross said Biden’s world view also played a role, which was that there was a global ideological struggle at play between democracy and totalitarianism.     

He said the administration wanted to establish a liberal, rules-based international order to counter perceived threats from China and Russia. But it soon realized that it needed what it viewed as non-democratic nations to be part of the coalition. 

 “It turns out that you need non-democracies who have assets to be part of your coalition or at least ensure they are not part of the other coalition,” he said. 

“Biden said we are not going to withdraw from the Middle East and leave a vacuum that the Russians and the Chinese are going to fill,” he added. 

Ross argued that Biden’s policy toward the Middle East was more about China than Russia, arguing that the latter was likely to be much weaker because of the war in Ukraine. 

The US was also seeking to be the architect of an agreement to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as part of its vision to prevent powerful competitors from establishing footholds in the oil-rich region.  

Ross said the recent visits to Saudi Arabia by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were part of the efforts to reengage with the Kingdom’s leadership. 

Agreeing with Ross’ main arguments, Middle East expert and academic Vali Nasr pointed to the manner in which the Biden administration attempted to construct a Middle East coalition to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Nasr, who is professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that Biden had traveled to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 after a visit to Israel, in order to sell them the idea of an “Arab NATO,” a proposed US-sponsored Middle East military coalition designed to counter Iran. 

“But Biden was completely rebuffed by the Saudis who told him that they are going on the path of reengagement with Iran,” he said. 

Nasr added that the US saw it needed to change its policies after perceiving China to have developed closer ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

India using anti-money laundering rules to ‘silence critics’: Amnesty

India using anti-money laundering rules to ‘silence critics’: Amnesty
Updated 27 September 2023

India using anti-money laundering rules to ‘silence critics’: Amnesty

India using anti-money laundering rules to ‘silence critics’: Amnesty
  • Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinizing their finances

NEW DELHI: India is exploiting recommendations by a global money-laundering watchdog as a “draconian” tool to shutter civil society groups and suppress activists and critics, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
Government critics within civil society organizations and the media have long complained of harassment in the world’s biggest democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist administration, a charge it strenuously denies.
Amnesty said the recommendations of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) were being abused to bring in “draconian laws to stifle the non-profit sector” and block organizations from funding.
The 39-nation FATF, of which India has been a member since 2010, is mandated to tackle global money laundering and terrorist financing.
Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinizing their finances and clamping down on foreign funding.
“Under the guise of combatting terrorism, the Indian government has leveraged the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendations to tighten its arsenal of financial and counter-terrorism laws which are routinely misused to target and silence critics,” Amnesty International India chair Aakar Patel said in a statement.
In the last 10 years, India has canceled the licenses of more than 20,600 non-governmental organizations, with nearly 6,000 of these taking place since 2022, the report said.
In 2020, Amnesty International had to suspend its Indian operations after its bank accounts were frozen.
The Indian government defended its move, accusing Amnesty of “illegal practices” involving the transfer of “large amounts of money” from Amnesty UK to India.
Journalists critical of the government also complain of increased harassment, both on social media — where Modi’s ruling party has a powerful presence — and in the real world.

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results
Updated 27 September 2023

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results
  • Dennis Francis hails major sustainable development declaration as ‘remarkable’ win
  • ‘We need to maintain this momentum and to build on it with concrete, tangible actions’

NEW YORK: The president of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday said he is “encouraged” by the progress of its 78th session, hailing the “remarkable” win of a major sustainable development declaration.

Dennis Francis spoke of the need to “unite the nations” in his opening address last week. Now addressing the UNGA as the final speaker out of 176 heads of state and ministers, he said the week’s developments are a “welcome reminder that the UN remains focused on the collective challenges of our time.”

But he warned: “Declarations in and of themselves aren’t enough. We need to maintain this momentum and to build on it with concrete, tangible actions.”

Hundreds of representatives from civil society as well as public and private organizations spoke at the UN headquarters in New York, Francis said.

The UNGA resulted in four major political declarations, covering “universal healthcare; work to end tuberculosis; pandemic prevention, preparedness and response; and the need to urgently … scale up sustainable development progress.”

The final declaration was described as a “particularly remarkable win” by Francis, who said it serves as a commitment to “push harder and close the gaps.”

He lauded member states for taking part in the high-level dialogue on development financing, highlighting the prevalence of discussions on the need to reform global finance for the benefit of the developing world. “We can’t rest until there’s accessibility, equity and justice in development finance,” he said.

Few topics raised during the week were as “frequent, consistent or as charged” as the war in Ukraine, he added.

The conflict being perpetrated by a permanent member of the UN Security Council is “unconscionable,” and has rekindled “unthinkable” decades-old fears of nuclear weapons, Francis said.

He recommitted to “shining a spotlight on the urgent need to resolve these situations of deep concern.”

Climate change requires each member state to “look closely at our own carbon footprints” and move beyond gross domestic product to a “metric that captures a country’s true vulnerability to shocks.”

Francis urged member states to take part in the UAE-hosted UN Climate Change Conference later this year with a spirit of “unity and solidarity,” and deliver a bold plan of action.

“Whether on climate or conflict, poverty or justice, or peace or strong institutions, these aren’t just global calls, they’re existential calls,” he said.

Francis ended his address by reminding member states: “We hear so often that the clock is ticking. We have it within us today to heal our divisions, find integrated solutions that reflect our universal values and commitments, and usher in a brighter tomorrow.”

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’
Updated 27 September 2023

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’
  • ‘The Taliban are not simply failing to uphold women’s rights, this oppression of women is central to their system of governance,’ says lawyer and campaigner Karima Bennoune
  • Council members unanimously condemn the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan but stop short of using the word ‘apartheid’ to describe it

NEW YORK CITY: Experts on Tuesday urged the international community to officially recognize the “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan amid the escalating restrictions imposed on women and girls by the Taliban regime in the country.

During a media event on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, shortly before a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, international lawyer and civil society representative Karima Bennoune said the “drastic restrictions” on 50 percent of the population were “unparalleled” in the world.

“I believe the ‘gender apartheid’ approach is the most promising way forward as the Taliban are not simply failing to uphold women’s rights, this oppression of women is central to their system of governance,” she added.

“Deeming the situation to be gender apartheid not only implicates the perpetrators of the apartheid but, as was the case with racial apartheid in South Africa, it means that no member state can be complicit in or normalize the Taliban’s illegal actions.”

The International Criminal Court defines the crime of apartheid perpetrated by a regime as the systematic oppression and domination by one racial group of one or more other racial groups with the aim of maintaining that regime.

During the Security Council meeting, Bennoune noted that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and a number of governments have already labeled the Taliban’s actions against women and girls as a form of apartheid, and called on the UN to officially codify this approach under international law by adding the word “gender” to the existing definition.

“The apartheid framework recognizes that the ordinary human rights approach, centering the state as the actor to implement human rights, cannot work here,” she said.

“Positive change will only be possible with a consistent, principled international response led by this council, mandated by its 10 Women, Peace and Security resolutions, and supported by states from all regions.”

Sima Sami Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, echoed Bennoune’s views during her comments at the meeting.

The members of the council unanimously condemned the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan but stopped short of using the word “apartheid” to describe it.

Albania’s permanent representative to the UN, Ferit Hoxha, whose country holds the presidency of the council this month, said of the Taliban: “This regime and its rules are medieval and retrograde, with extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests simply unacceptable.

“Two years on from the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation remains dire, with the international community struggling to balance its support for the Afghan people without rewarding the de facto authorities.”

Representatives from several states, including China, Japan, Mozambique, the UK and the US, all called for a reversal of the Taliban restrictions on women and girls.

Speaking on behalf of Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique, the three current African non-permanent members of the Security Council, Mozambique’s representative to the UN, Pedro Comissario Afonso, said: “The lack of representation of the diversity of the Afghan people at the ethnic and social level in the political sphere is both apparent and deplorable.”

With winter approaching, council members expressed concern that the continued failure to reintegrate women into the positions they held before the Taliban takeover will serve only to exacerbate people’s

suffering amid a shortfall in funding for international aid, and the reluctance of many countries to engage with the regime.

Citing a recent UN Development Program report that said gross domestic product in Afghanistan fell by 3.6 percent in 2022, following a 20.7 percent contraction in 2021, China’s representative, Zhang Jun, attributed the decline to a “sharp drop” in humanitarian funding.

“The report claims two thirds of Afghanistan will need humanitarian assistance next year, with 41 million Afghans in a state of food insecurity, and yet the humanitarian assistance program is just 27 percent funded at present,” he said.

“This is a clear demonstration that the cutback in funding is of an ideological and political nature that only stands in the way of the Afghan people; winter is coming.”

Both India and Iran, who share borders with Afghanistan, expressed concern about the “potential consequences for regional insecurity” caused by the situation in the country. However, the Chinese envoy suggested that “on the whole,” the security situation had improved since the Taliban took control.

The Taliban’s choice of representative to the UN is not recognized by the international organization. Naseer Faiq, the representative of the former Afghan government that was toppled by the Taliban, strongly rejected the Chinese representative’s suggestion.

“Taliban assertions of counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts ring hollow as they are leaders, are deeply involved in narcotics production and smuggling within the Taliban centers of power and resources distribution,” he told the council.

“Tragically, two years since the Taliban seized control, the situation of Afghanistan has not improved … the Afghan people continue to suffer.”

Describing Afghanistan under the Taliban as a “hub for terrorism,” Faiq said that despite the challenges, the Afghan people are nonetheless “resolute” in their diversity and would continue to “work tirelessly” to defend their rights.

Echoing calls by Afghan community organizations, he urged the council and international partners to maintain the pressure on the Taliban and demand the reversal of policies that deny women their rights.

“We also call on the UN to recognize and classify the plight of woman and girls as gender apartheid, and emphasize the necessity of ongoing humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan, subject to rigorous monitoring and supervision of aid delivery,” Faiq said.

“We can help shape a better future for the Afghan people and prevent the country from once again becoming a breeding ground for extremism.”

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN
Updated 26 September 2023

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN
  • Catholic Church’s governing body expresses concern over events in Syria, Sudan, Palestine
  • Increase in conflict ‘clear evidence of crumbling trust among nations’: Archbishop Paul Gallagher

NEW YORK: A “profound rethink” of the multilateral system is needed to respond to the world’s growing challenges, the Catholic Church’s central governing body told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
The Holy See was represented by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary of relations with states, who said: “We’re living at a crucial moment for humanity, in which peace seems to give way to war. Conflicts are growing and stability is increasingly put at risk.”
He lauded the UN’s historical efforts to reduce poverty, help migrants and promote nuclear disarmament, but he warned: “In these last years we’ve seen crumbling trust among nations, clear evidence of which is the increase in number and gravity of conflicts and wars.”
This has resulted in an “inevitable and equally significant increase in the number of meetings held at different levels, though not always in direct proportion to the effectiveness required in pursuing the proposed goals.”
And though “rivers of words” are spent by delegations at international forums, “one doesn’t always find … the same willingness to listen,” Gallagher said.
He relayed a message from Pope Francis decrying “ideological colonization,” which he defined as richer, more powerful countries “attempting to impose their worldview on poorer countries.” The rule of law “seems sometimes to be replaced by the law of the strongest,” Gallagher added.
He called for a return to listening and dialogue in the international arena, in an effort to avoid further conflicts and lessen the suffering of humanity.
He added: “All states must rediscover a spirit of service with the intention of building a global solidarity that expresses itself concretely in helping those who suffer.
“As part of this shared commitment, rulers must put aside their own needs, expectations and desires for sovereignty or omnipotence before the concrete gaze of the most fragile.”
Gallagher said the conflict in Ukraine “has been instrumental to bringing back the elevated threat of nuclear escalation into the discussion.”
He described the use of nuclear energy in warfare as a crime “not only against the dignity of human beings, but against any possible future for our common home.”
Another pressing concern for the Holy See is the proliferation of artificial intelligence, Gallagher said. The “expanding digital galaxy we inhabit … touches every aspect of our lives and community,” he added.
As a result, there is an “urgent need” to engage in ethical debate on the use and integration of AI in daily life around the world, Gallagher said.
He relayed a message from Pope Francis: “We must be vigilant and work to ensure that the discriminatory use of these instruments doesn’t take root at the expense of the most fragile and excluded.
“It isn’t acceptable that the decision about someone’s life and future be entrusted to an algorithm.”
The Holy See’s concern over AI extends to the use of autonomous weapons systems in conflicts, with “only humans” being “truly capable of seeing and judging the ethical impact of their actions.”
The Catholic governing body called for the creation of a global organization to oversee the use of AI.
But technological developments can offer hope to the global fight against climate change, Gallagher said, adding that the international community “needs to focus on a positive outcome” at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in the UAE.
Turning to the issue of human rights, he said: “Let us never forget that the true litmus test to see if human rights are being protected is the degree to which people have freedom of religion or belief in a country.”
Gallagher added: “Disturbingly, we continue to live in a world where people are persecuted simply for professing their faith in public.”
He also noted the Holy See’s concern at the subjective use of the terms “hate crime” and “hate speech,” adding that they are being used to keep people from expressing their religious beliefs. “Religious freedom is one of the absolute minimum requirements necessary to live in dignity,” Gallagher said.
The Holy See is also concerned by the humanitarian situation in Syria, with people in the country “plagued by 12 years of war, earthquakes and great poverty,” he added. The Church is encouraging the resumption of a political process of reconciliation in Syria.
Sudan is also of great concern to the Holy See, Gallagher said, adding that the governing body “makes a heartfelt appeal for the laying down of arms so that dialogue can prevail and the suffering of the population can be alleviated.”
Frequent violence as a result of coups in sub-Saharan Africa has “disrupted the democratic process, caused death and destruction, and caused humanitarian and migration crises,” Gallagher said.
“Behind episodes of terrorism and violence are also international economic interests that encourage the unjust dynamics of colonialism,” he added.
The Holy See expressed “serious concern” over events in Jerusalem and its status as a holy city.
Gallagher said: “I renew my appeal not only to the Israelis and Palestinians to open to sincere dialogue, but also to the entire international community.”
He ended is address by urging the world to move away from “the logic of the legitimacy of war,” adding: “The battlefield has become practically unlimited and the effects potentially catastrophic. Peace is possible if it’s truly willed, and if peace is possible it’s a duty.”